Robert Duvall: The Cowboy Tango

Actor Zeroes In On Westerns ... But He Can Dance, Too

June 25, 2006


Robert Duvall and his wife, Luciana Pedraza, attend the premiere screening of AMC's "Broken Trail" in New York June 13, 2006. (GETTY)


(CBS) Robert Duvall won raves for "The Great Santini" back in 1979. From Marines to cowboys, Duvall can play just about any role - including, it turns out, gracious host, as CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver learned during a visit to his farm.

You can call him Duvall, or Bob, or Bobby. But his childhood nickname was Bodge.

"My brother couldn't say 'Bobby,' so he said 'Bodgy,'" Duvall explains. "My old man called me Bernie. That was another nickname. We were into nicknames."

With all those nicknames, it's no wonder that Duvall has been able to transform himself into so many characters in more than 80 films, including the overbearing Marine pilot in "The Great Santini"; an evangelist preacher in "The Apostle"; and Duvall's favorite role, Gus McCrae, the philosopher cowboy in "Lonesome Dove," who could ride and shoot with the best of them.

Now Duvall has made another epic Western called "Broken Trail" for the AMC network. This time, he plays a cowboy named Print Ritter who goes on a horse drive across the west with his nephew, played by Thomas Haden Church. Duvall describes the movie as a trip during which they "pick people up along the way ... kind of a character-driven piece of two men and their journey."

They even rescue a group of terrified Chinese immigrant girls from forced prostitution:

It was Duvall who came up with the idea for the movie, He is also executive producer, and says he exercised his right to re-edit the film, He thought the first version was exactly opposite of how he'd conceived of the story.

What was "the opposite vision," in his opinion?

"More gunfights, you know. More action, less emphasis on humor, less emphasis on behavior. And we got a lot of resistant but we did it, and 90 percent of what you see is our edit - my edit."

For 75-year-old Duvall, this project is especially important because he calls it the closing chapter of his Western trilogy, along with "Lonesome Dove" and the 2003 release "Open Range."

He says he thinks the Western genre is important because "it's ours. It's ours... It's American. The English have Shakespeare, the French have Moliere, the Russians have Chekhov. The Western is ours."

But despite his love of the West, Duvall makes his home in the rolling countryside of Virginia, on about 360 acres. "It's not a lot in Texas," he says. "It's a lot here, though. It's a lot here."

Did he ever feel that not living in Hollywood means that he's not around the action and he might miss out on something? "Well, sometimes," Duvall says. "When you go to a party there, somebody will say, 'Oh, I got a part for you.' Nine times out of 10, it's all hot air. Sometimes being there all the time will lead to a part, but it doesn't really hurt."

In Virginia, he says, he's "always, always thinking, 'What's next? What's next?'"

Virginia was one of many places Duvall spent time when he was growing up, His dad was in the Navy. In fact, it was his parents who suggested he go into acting. Duvall went to study in New York, where he hung out with other fledgling actors like Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

"I knew Gene. A wonderful guy," recalls Duvall. "We'd look for jobs and then we'd end up forgetting the job and going to a 42nd Street double feature. Then Dustin came back and slept on his kitchen floor. And some of those were good times. But now, once you make it, I never see those guys... It's strange, it's strange."

He ended up doing well in theater and in television. But most Americans got to know Duvall through his film work. In 1962, in "To Kill a Mockingbird," he played the role of Boo Radley, the neighborhood crazy man who turns out to be a hero.

But a decade later, after a string of other films, Duvall was cast as Tom Hagen, the family counselor in "The Godfather," a role that earned him an Oscar nomination, He got another nod a few years later for playing Lt. Col Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now," in which he delivered the famous line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory."

Says Duvall, "People come up to me and say it to me as if they're the only ones in the world besides me that know that line."

He has had six Academy Award nominations in all. But the movie for which he won was "Tender Mercies," in which he played Mac Sledge, a down-at-the-heels former country-western singer.

He sang every song himself. That was part of his deal.

"They were trying to get around it," says Duvall, "but I said, "No, no. This has to be part of it. You cannot dub later. I have to do that.' Yeah."

Tell him that people constantly refer to him as one of the great actors of our time, and Duvall counters, "Well, that's all relative. It's a matter of opinion, you know."

But, when he looks at it objectively, he says, "What makes what I do work? It's this, what we're doing right now: talking and listening. ... That's the beginning and the end. The beginning and the end is to be simple."

On a personal level, life has not been so simple for Robert Duvall.

Somehow, Braver points out to him, along with everything else, he found time to get married - a lot.

"Oh, I thought you meant in the movies," Duvall says. "No. A lot? A lot? Yeah, well, I've lived a lot."

His fourth wife, 42 years his junior, is Luciana Pedraza. They met in Argentina, but it was he who got her interested in one of his favorite pastimes: tango, the Argentine national dance. He even cast her in his film, "Assassination Tango," a film Duvall wrote and directed.

They tango well together - like professionals. Duvall points out that Pedrama once represented her province in the Miss Argentina competition and she won a category called "Miss Elegance."

"They're big into elegance," Duvall says. "Elegance is a word they still use there."

Meanwhile, Duvall just keeps going.

"It's been a good career, a wonderful career. And it's not over yet... There's no drool to be wiped, you know, so I mean, I mean I got things I want to do," he says.

"It's like the line from 'Lonesome Dove,' hopefully: The older the violin, the sweeter the music."

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---- CNN, 2006-06-23